Before March 2011, the name Rami Makhlouf received scant mention in the English-language press. Then, as Syrians began taking to the streets in large numbers in the southern city of Deraa, media around the world reported that many demonstrators had chanted that someone named Rami Makhlouf was robbing them. As al Jazeera reports, "demonstrators have shouted the name of Makhlouf as a symbol of graft in a country that has been facing severe water shortages and unemployment ranging from government estimates of 10 per cent to independent estimates of 25 per cent."
Commentators taking a crash course in Syrian politics started to ask the question: "Who is Rami Makhlouf?"
Here is a simple profile of Makhlouf: He is a first cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, a wealthy businessman, and he now tops a short list of Syrians sanctioned by the EU. Less frequently mentioned is the fact that Makhlouf is the owner of Syria’s only privately owned "political" daily newspaper al-Watan.
Though al-Watan was once cautiously praised by Western development organisations and business journals as a symbol of Syria’s emerging "modernity", the daily paper can now be seen for what it truly is: a more profitable version of the state-run media. Makhlouf’s high-level connections to the Syrian regime have implicated him in the past two months of violence targeting peaceful demonstrators. But what role has his newspaper al-Watan played in crafting a counter-narrative about the demonstrations?
On 11 May 2011 al-Jazeera Arabic reported that Syrian troops had killed dozens of individuals in separate military incursions in cities across the country, including Homs. The goal of the crackdown was clear: to quell ongoing demonstrations and suppress any future outbreak of popular dissent.
The pages of al-Watan told a very different story. On 12 May, al-Watan reported, the Syrian Army concluded its military operations in the city of Homs, successfully rooting out members of "armed terrorist groups" without a single civilian injured or killed. The citizens of Homs, grateful for this "quality" intervention, gathered to bid farewell to the army by throwing rice and flowers.
Al-Watan has gone to great lengths to paint a detailed portrait of the Syrian "militant" who has single-handedly wreaked havoc on towns across the country. The militant possesses a series of shifting identities: he is a drug dealer, a Bedouin, a criminal, an instigator of sectarian violence, and sometimes, he even turns himself in and confesses.
On May 9, Syrian news outlets reported that 1083 "rioters" had turned themselves in to police stations across the country. Six days later, the figure had risen to 6131. Al-Watan reported that thousands were released "after they had promised to never repeat any action that is detrimental to the nation or [its]citizens".
The "confessions" of the militants, printed almost verbatim in al-Watan, lend more detail to the newspaper’s narrative of chaos being the sole goal of demonstrators.
One such confession came from the mouth of 28-year-old Rami Radwan who lives in the Damascus countryside. He described joy rides with friends where they would "shoot [guns]into the air to scare people into demonstrating with us". Radwan detailed meetings where he and other criminals planned how to best foment chaos. The group eventually decided to set fire to a local shop. Radwan then said, "I came and turned myself in to security forces, along with the weapons I used, when I learned of the Interior Ministry’s amnesty for those who have committed crimes … because the path I was on was the wrong one."
Those who did not turn themselves in were dealt with swiftly. In a remark meant to be complimentary toward the Army, al-Watan reported, "when the Army enters a city or neighborhood, they arrest every person in front of them even if he’s not fighting. Then, after confirming his identity and personal information, they decide to keep him or let him free." Thanks to tactics like this, readers are told, calm has prevailed in Syrian cities.
Al-Watan attempts to bring order and finality to a situation that many Syrians must perceive as unpredictable and never-ending. One method of presenting a sense of order is through a clear narrative: the guilty are apprehended and irrefutable evidence of their guilt is presented. We see this with the printed confessions, but also with al-Watan’s use of photographs that methodically display the various weapon and drug caches of apprehended militants. Splayed out like a science display, these troves of malfeasance are intended to serve as the ultimate proof of wrongdoing.
As Syria restricts independent journalists from entering cities under military control, reporters have relied on social media and trusted sources to tell a more complete story.
In early May, when al-Watan was reporting the success of military operations, activists in Homs posted videos of Syrian troops and armored vehicles silently entering the city in the wee hours of morning and then, days later, videos that documented heavy weapon fire and its aftermath. During the military operations in Homs, there were sporadic demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience that contradict al-Watan’s core assertion that there is no political or social uprising. Reports of mass arrests, destruction of public property, and indiscriminate shooting from Syrian police abound, while videos of Syrians purportedly being humiliated at the hands of security forces have begun to leak out, such as this video from Bayda shot on 15 May.
Still, the Arab journalists who remain in Syria are finding creative ways to report. Journalist Ghadi Frances for the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir, reporting from Damascus, observed that the media reports on Syria are subject to constant scepticism. He takes a taxi trip through the neighborhoods of Damascus to collect scenes of the city. Tanks block his taxi’s path and security forces interrogate him at checkpoints. He notices shops are open and the soldiers take their lunch in the street, but he is surrounded by a "silent noise" marked by much movement and little talking. His final stop is the neighborhood of Duma, where thousands of protestors had flooded the streets only a week before. He stops at a checkpoint and the officer says, "Get out of here, brother. Don’t you know where you are?"
Syrian media outlets, taking their cues from President Asad’s speeches, have declared that Western media and Arab satellite networks like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are enemies of the state. If we look to Syrian media as the inverse — as foundations of the state — then al-Watan plays a crucial part in taking the regime’s official narrative to the people.
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